Review: Nicholas Joseon Moya Costello

In the Swash Zone: Harriet Chandler by Moya Costello

Harriet Chandler didn’t make it onto the list of best novels of 2015 as far as I know. That may be because it was published in 2014, when it didn’t make the list either, or because its author, Moya Costello, calls it a ‘novella’, in her own redefinition of the term as a short, intense mix of ‘prose poem and prose fiction’, rather than a novel as such. At any rate, its appearance escaped notice, like some shy bush animal. The closest I can find to a reference in the mainstream media is Xu Qin’s piece in Shanghai Daily, ‘Profile of an inspiring woman’. Harriet Chandler is the first book from Short Odds Publications, another avatar of the author, whose act of self-publishing may also have got in the way. As Anna Couani explains, Costello, like herself, was ‘in the Sydney Women Writers’ Workshop (aka The No Regrets Group) in the 70’s and 80’s … [and] shared the feminist values of the group’ which included, in Costello’s words, ‘a radical critique of the industry context of their creative work’. Taking the means of production and dissemination into your own hands through self-publication is a logical extension of this spirit in technologically as well as politically changed times. It throws a spanner into the established system of book marketing and promotional recognition. The Prime Minister’s Literary Award, for example, makes it explicit that ‘self-published books are not eligible’, even if to self-publish successfully requires a high degree of editorial, design and book-producing skills, collaboratively integrated, as well as the writing talent.

Harriet Chandler defies the conventions of authorship, among them the idea that a literary work springs fully formed from its creator’s genius, without sources or habitat. Costello’s protagonist is generated from the love interest in Murray Bail’s 1987 novel Holden’s Performance, an earlier Harriet Chandler who is the same but different. That’s enough to scare a mainstream publisher. This bold, uncompromising author, so Couani argues, recuperates ‘the Harriet Chandler character … as a feminist heroine’. She becomes a mid-century modern Australian woman who lives and works on her own terms, with a critical and activist take on the world, which Couani salutes as ‘Some kind of magic!’

How can it be, then, that this brilliant, beautiful book has slipped through the net? I discovered that it existed when the author visited Adelaide for a symposium on experimental writing and had a few copies to sell at a reading. But I ‘could not put it down’, in the phrase that Beth Driscoll cites in her controversial mediation of the ‘middlebrow’  in contemporary Australian fiction. Ironically perhaps, this self-identified ‘experimental’ work ticks some of the boxes of the middlebrow too. Its front cover has a fuzzy image of a female figure in a swimsuit against a hazy blue sky—only the figure seems to have turned into a male when she jack-knifes into the water on the back. As Driscoll describes it, the middlebrow

is associated with women and the middle class. It is reverent towards legitimate culture and thus concerned with quality … The middlebrow is concerned with the domestic and recreational… and has a quality of ethical seriousness.

Harriet Chandler does these same things, yet irreverently as well, from a radical working-class perspective. Costello’s Harriet’s parents are Communists and the book foregrounds the character’s  ideological formation. The idiosyncratic wit of the writing is the agent of a critique that de-legitimates cultural values and questions judgements, and understands that the domestic and recreational are economic activities too. The emotions here are different: sharp, buoyant moods; hilarious exchanges; ecstatic uplift that is sensual and intelligent at the same time. Must middlebrow be conservatively middle-class or are there other possibilities? Costello’s commitment is to everyday and inclusive Australia, as lived in the seaside suburb of Manly, but also to possibilities of transformative change, especially in gender relations and for the environment. Her Harriet, a fluid creature whose trajectory is from fish to bird, is further evolved than Bail’s Holden. Harriet Chandler concludes with a prose poem called ‘Australia: Terra Omnium’, the last words of which are ‘Sorry Day. Reconciliation. Platypus.’

Costello’s book may have reached few readers at this stage (SOP printed 500 copies), which classifies it as ‘serious literature’ in the parodic sense that Stephanie Bishop conjures in her contribution to the collective response from Antonia Hayes, Susan Johnson and herself as writers whose novels are discussed by Driscoll as cases of marketing to the mainstream. That doesn’t necessarily deprive Harriet Chandler of ‘appeal’, though (a marker of the middlebrow for Ivor Indyk). It appeals to me not least because Costello knows what she is doing in relation to the various possibilities for fiction in Australia, past and present. She positions her heroine upfront in a great, questing tradition, as her Manly Harriet recites Christina Stead’s reference to Homer in the ‘Preface: The Sea People’ to For Love Alone (1944): ‘Oh, Australian, have you just come from the harbour?’ Costello’s book is a gendered, politically active engagement with Australian fiction in which the spirits of Stead, Jean Devanny, Eve Langley’s The Pea-Pickers and Tabloid Story join in, among other interventionists.

Like Odysseus, Harriet has a bad leg. Where he was scarred by a boar, she contracted childhood polio, which leaves her with the distinguishing marks of calipers and a walking stick, and an intensified negotiation with the physical world that pulses through her apprehension of all that Sydney harbours, natural and social:

She enjoyed the perfectly rounded spit-balls of sand the crabs brought up, the pattern of crab work, crab play, crab design, crab architecture; their team movement across the sand, a choreographed ensemble; on her haunches on the sand, examining this small world, fascinated by these movements, this play work, at the water’s edge. Perfectly formed roundness, miniature spheres, tiny balls of the sand’s mineral content excreted, after a meal of organic matter, by small crustaceans, printmakers using the swash zone as their ground, reconstituting material from elsewhere, making more.

Costello’s procedure is similarly re-constitutive. The book follows Harriet’s life from her fondly remembered childhood with her parents, whose death (a startling authorial stroke in a narrative not much interested in plot) leaves her in ‘the house on Kangaroo Street’ with a life of her own to make: echoes of Molly Bloom’s Eccles Street, via Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello’s (no relation) fictive fiction, The House on Eccles Street. She has male lovers and a best friend, fellow artist Amirah Soul. The thrust and lunge of their conversation, about art and gardening and politics, including a trip to the Royal Easter Show and a recipe for orange chiffon pie, is among the funniest things in the book. The novella maps onto Bail’s novel in Harriet’s middle years when she makes cut-outs to advertise the news reels screening at Alex Screech’s Epic Theatre and meets young Holden, whose characteristics are fixity and lack: ‘lack of passion for anything and a lack of its expression’. For all his chivalrous care, Holden is unable to understand Harriet or speak her name. In her plenitude and mutability, she is his opposite. He protects the world through his reliability; she changes it in her art-making. The generative relationship between Bail’s novel and Costello’s novella is a fascinating study, not least in the way Bail’s satirical portrait of Anglo-Australian masculinity frames a vacant space for Costello’s female portrait to fill and overflow. Bail is a visual writer who works his inventive, reflexive material to a high finish, with humour and pathos. Likewise Costello, turning her affinity with his writing, but also their marked points of difference, to creative effect. One of her favourite words is ‘loose’, a readiness to let go of constraint and follow curves and folds without end. That sets her writing, at its most intimate, against his. It is always bodily, like Harriet’s paint brushes ‘an extension of her arm … prostheses retaining muscle memory, like the cane for her leg, for loose expression, free flow, for broad strokes, for pushing the paint around like a billycart, for detailed work.’ Among the artists she admires are Turner and Rothko, Clarice Beckett and (like Bail, but with qualifications) Ian Fairweather.

Julienne van Loon pays tribute to Moya Costello and the experimental writers associated with Sydney in the early 1980s, including Ania Walwicz, Anna Couani, Joanne Burns, Pam Brown, Barbara Brooks and others. ‘Writers of my generation and younger,’ says van Loon, in her review of Harriet Chandler for TEXT,

owe a debt to these women, not just for the beauty, humour and intelligence of their creative work, but because of their energetic enthusiasm for a kind of writing, and indeed publishing, that privileges collectivism and openly rejects commercialism as a measure of what ought or ought not be published.

Costello’s first work in book form was the sequence Kites in Jakarta, paired with The Waters of Vanuatu by Carmel Kelly in a volume from Couani’s Sea Cruise Books in 1985: short prose pieces, tightly structured non-narratives, ironic or impersonal in affect, even when they are monologues. Kites in Jakarta introduces Costello’s experimental approach and characteristic emphasis on the conditions of work, especially for women, and the impact of new information technology. Her signature tutu makes an appearance among other collectible and wearable objects such as brooches. The sequence contains ‘The Usherette’, a comic masterpiece that presages Harriet Chandler (who works for a cinema) in the unnamed usherette of the title who works in ‘a top-class world renowned Arts Centre of the first rank’, where she proves subversive:

Handel’s Messiah is playing. In the choir the men are in dinner suits and the women in grey dresses, like penguins on Gibraltar and pigeons in holes. ‘Unto us a child is born. Unto us a DAUGHTER is given.’

I walk down the aisle and check along the rows: any rings, jewellery of any description, $10 notes, a few coins, some sweeties maybe ….

This was published two years before Holden’s Performance, suggesting that the author was already finding her character before she encountered Harriet Chandler in Bail.

Couani observes that ‘the feminist writers in our group at the time were reading the French feminist philosophers and we generally agreed that the prevailing literary forms like conventional narrative perpetuated a patriarchal consciousness’. It was part of a wider inquiry into authority, led by feminism and radical philosophy (Lacan, Cixous, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari), and some of the writing wears those influences heavily. Costello keeps her sense of play, giving imported ideas her own twist, grounding them in the local. This virtuoso passage from Harriet Chandler, about how the artist’s practice engages ‘intertextually’ with the natural world, is one example where the exegetical mode moves happily towards nonsense writing:

In the cracks, holes and fractures, in the ellipses and caesuras the termites made, spaces opened that made an architecture of narrative. Termite transcript formed the terms of a text. Termites, miniscule beings, formed majuscules making their story… The raised paper she made for the termite majuscules was an embossed skin, the scarring from a grafted story of Termite Trails/Termite Tales.

Not every mainstream editor would let that stand, to the reader’s detriment. Small Ecstasies appeared in 1994, published by UQP, a stylish collection of prose poems and short prose pieces that demonstrate Costello’s virtues of precision, concentration and unsentimentality. The situation of women in the workplace (the classroom now) is front and centre. There’s a sense of threat (nuclear, environmental, domestic) and the disruption of once reliable institutions (the union, the weekend, public transport) from neoliberal pressures and technological innovation: ‘You can’t afford expensive underpants nor revolutionary acts—you need your energy for all the small things, like living through the lateness of this bus.’ It’s a fine book in which epigrams bite lightly as the world shifts:

You know that it’s postfeminism when you buy your first dress, your first bra, and your first tube of mascara since 1970.

And you know that it’s postmodernism because you know you know.

Kites in Jakarta included a rejection letter to someone applying for a job. Small Ecstasies gives us a set of rejection letters ‘from the editor’. Is this ecstatic masochism? The last four read:

A bit fragmentary. See marginal notes.
Can’t find a spot for your short story. Cheers.
Mistake. I’ve already seen this.
Too ironic?

And that was before email. You can see the wisdom of self-publishing.

In 2000 Costello published The Office as a Boat with Brandl & Schlesinger. Subtitled ‘A Chronicle’, its pieces coalesce in a comedy about a group of women who work (for a man) in an office in Adelaide. Time and place are circumscribed and the characters act themselves with vivid, mad clarity as the women resist the regimentation imposed on them, including by the revolution in word processing that changes not only working life but text itself:

The words and paragraphs looked very fixed. But because writing, especially before stabilised in printed publication, was made for unwriting, especially through word processing, they couldn’t live with what they had currently written—they had to undo.

In a fantastical climax their office becomes a boat and they float away through the city to the sea, unmoored. Such undoing becomes part of Harriet Chandler’s artistic practice in the new book.

‘Courage, my dear,’ is Joy Chandler’s advice to her daughter on how to live. Harriet Chandler is a manifesto for a woman’s life of art and the autonomy it demands. Much of the book concerns process. The liminal littoral is made literal, while also working as an evolutionary metaphor, ‘the swash zone’:

There was a kind of drift, not undisciplined, without a total vision, a notion only, an idea, a brewing that was necessary, necessity itself, of a captured version of the end product, and the thing coming together in that everydayness, solid. It was her work.

Costello never writes a sentence that isn’t interesting. She is unafraid of asymmetry and fracture. On every page are passages to mark and remember, language that appeals. In a time of crisis the mode of synoptic recollection has a healing effect, as art becomes an expression of nature:

In her journal, small samples in little plastic bags of soil, of bark and leaf, white-stained, grey-green, dark grey, pink, brown and olive were taped on one side of facing pages, and tone and pigment were tested with pastels and watercolour on the other. Kookaburras laughed her awake of a morning….

To return, then, to my initial question: what does it say about our literary culture that such a book can all but escape the net of recognition? Partly it is the authorial choice not to market herself in the usual way, when there’s plenty to crowd out a book like this. It may also be a symptom of conformity, where received expectations of who and what is worth bothering with take all the oxygen. Still, the book has its life. For those like myself who wait a couple of years to catch up with the latest publishing sensations, by which time they have often evaporated, there is space for the pleasure of a left-fielder like Harriet Chandler.

In terms of a diagnosis of cultural well-being or otherwise I was struck by the unlikely relevance of a passage from Lionel Trilling, a critic of yesteryear, in his Sincerity and Authenticity (1972), where he notes the operation of ‘social enclaves organized around aesthetic preferences’. He is repeating Rousseau’s view that ‘art is one of the agents of conformity’. He sees this in the way artistic worth that appears to express creative individuality is often an illusion manufactured by the consensus of a coterie: ‘this is not autonomy; the rule, the law, derives from others’, Trilling writes:

The unprecedented proliferation of art, the ease with which formerly esoteric or repellent art-forms are accepted, the fascinating conjunction of popular and commercial art with what used to be called advanced art—these circumstances do not support the old belief that art fosters a personal autonomy. … Rousseau, living in an age when the new opinion-forming power of art could already be discerned, says nothing more, nor less, than this.

The argument is relevant to the question of whether today in our society literature can or should stand ‘in an adversary relation to the dominant culture’ (Trilling’s phrase) and what the costs are if it can’t. One cost might be the mere happenstance (hard labour) by which a work such as Harriet Chandler surfaces. Another cost might be that the dominance claimed by the ‘dominant culture’ is in fact flimsy, a self-serving construct designed to obscure what’s really going on.

In this regard self-publishing is an advance-guard phenomenon that existing structures don’t know how to deal with, as Dallas J Baker argues, noting that the stigma against self-publishing as ‘vanity’ or ‘amateur’ is a recent by-product of the corporatisation of publishing practice. Baker notes, for example, that ‘corporate publishing, particularly in the genre of literary fiction, has long had a very low glass ceiling’ and cites UK research to show that, in response to those barriers, 65% of self-publishers are women. He suggests that literary critics (and this would include funding bodies, prize judges and festival directors) are at a loss for how to filter the tide of self-published books to identify those that might be significant. Baker concludes:

Although those in corporate publishing houses and some critics may still consider self-published works to be of less quality than traditionally published books, it is clear by the sheer number of titles and their sales figures that self-publishing is here to stay, and a force to be reckoned with.

The interim findings by Macquarie University’s Jan Zwar, David Throsby and Thomas Longden from their research on ‘How to Read the Australian Book Industry in a Time of Change’ give some local context. Focussing on authors of literary fiction, the top-earning quarter of whom make an average of $9000 a year from their writing (they mostly have other jobs), the research shows that while ‘changes in the industry are increasing opportunities for authors to publish their work using cost-effective digital technologies and small print runs … nearly a third of these authors report being worse off financially compared to five years ago.’

That helps explain the anxiety around a middle ground where art seeks to intersect with commercial success and reputational esteem, at long odds. The managed system doesn’t always deliver, while outside its walls the making of literature goes on—variegated, fissiparous, animated by other energies.


Bail, Murray, Holden’s Performance (Viking Australia, Ringwood Vic, 1987).
Baker, Dallas J., ‘Self-publishing matters – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise’, The Conversation, 13 March 2015.
Bishop, Stephanie, Hayes, Antonia, Johnson, Susan, ‘As One in Rejecting the Label “Middlebrow”’, Sydney Review of Books, 30 October 2015.
Costello, Moya, Harriet Chandler, Or The House on Kangaroo Street (Short Odds Publications, Lismore, New South Wales 2014.
Costello, Moya, The Office as a Boat: A Chronicle (Brandl & Schlesinger, Rose Bay, NSW, 2000).
Costello, Moya, Small Ecstasies (UQP, St Lucia, Qld., 1994).
Costello, Moya, and Kelly, Carmel, The Waters of Vanuatu and Kites in Jakarta (Sea Cruise Books, Glebe, NSW, 1985).
Couani, Anna, ‘Accomplished, Innovative & Hybrid: Anna Couani reviews Harriet Chandler by Moya Costello’, Rochford Street Review, 7 October 2015.
Driscoll, Beth, ‘Could Not Put It Down’, Sydney Review of Books, 20 October 2015.
Ivor Indyk, ‘The Cult of the Middlebrow’, Sydney Review of Books 4 September 2015.
Spineless Wonders, ‘Spineless Wonders Asks Moya Costello’, Short Australian Stories, 2016.
Trilling, Lionel, Sincerity and Authenticity (Oxford University Press, London, 1972).
van Loon, Julienne, ‘She had her plants’, TEXT, Vol 19 No 1 April 2015.
Xu, Qin, ‘Portrait of an inspiring woman’, Shanghai Daily 1 February 2015.
Zwar, Jan, Throsby, David, Longden, Thomas, ‘How to read the Australian book industry in a time of change’, The Conversation, 14 October 2015.